As I mentioned in a previous post, now is the time to be thinking about what you’ll eat this winter. While the exponential growth in farmer’s markets over the past decade has been a welcome change there are many people, even among the most die hard farmer’s market patrons who feel they are forced to return to the industrial ‘food’ stream at the close of market every fall. This is a shame and really quite unnecessary.
Here at Parker Family Farm our CSA members are able to purchase local food from our gardens all year round, even in the cold, dark months of winter. We offer many root crops such as tubers (potatoes), onions, carrots, beets, shallots and more. We also offer for as long as possible the spinach that I plant in our three passive solar heated hoop houses. This allows our customers access to fresh and healthy local food and helps with expenses at a slow time of year here on the farm.
But for those who think ahead now there is an opportunity to enjoy a more diverse offering at the evening meal when the wind and snow are howling outside the door. Why not learn to store vegetables? There are a number of ways and I hope to show several of them here at Eat Real. The first storage method I want to discuss is freezing.
If you have a freezer you should be filling it now with as many different types of vegetables as is possible. We have two chest freezers, one large, one medium because we put so much food by for winter and a lot of it includes our pork, beef, chickens and the occasional turkey. But we leave plenty of space for many of the vegetables coming out of the garden at this very moment.
Just the other day I froze several pounds of broccoli and I have another batch left before I’m satisfied with our store of broccoli for this winter. The first step is to clean and debug the broccoli.
I actually had luck this year keeping the cabbage moths off our broccoli. At least for a while. But eventually it just becomes too much of a hassle to remove all the weights from the row cover, remove the cover from the plants, harvest and then recover and replace the weights. But the very second that row cover is removed you can almost feel the wind change as all the moths in the neighborhood beat their wings in a flurry of excitement and race toward the now unprotected broccoli. So the later crop contains the caterpillars. Many people are ‘grossed out’ by this. Frankly, this is ridiculous. If you really want to be grossed out I’ll tell you how the big boys keep the cabbage moths of that pristine, tasteless broccoli you bought at the grocery store. I’m happy to clean the broccoli and pick off a few cabbage lopers in exchange for not getting cancer and other horrible things from the pesticides used by the industrial players.
Once the broccoli has been floated and the majority of the lopers are removed it’s time to make the flowers a bit more uniform. It makes things a lot easier if you chop up the broccoli so there are no big heads. This will allow for even cooking time, easier removal of air from the freezer bag and more uniform packaging (thus allowing for easier storage).
Once this is done it’s time to dump the whole lot into the large pot of boiling water you’ve already got on your stove top. Here’s the tricky part. The idea is to ‘blanch’ the vegetable, not cook it. You’re only attempting to heat the broccoli (or whatever else you happen to be blanching) long enough to kill the enzymes and bacteria that work to break down the vegetable. All vegetables, and indeed all living things, are teaming with the very bacteria that are required to break them down the moment they die and return it to the Earth. In preserving food by freezing we must blanch it first to kill these enzymes and bacteria.
But we don’t want to have the vegetables in the boiling water long enough to do anything more. Most reference material I’ve consulted agrees on a time of about three minutes. I say this is the tricky part because most of us don’t have a commercial kitchen with commercial kitchen size equipment. Ever try to dump a huge quantity of vegetables into a pot of boiling water? Burn yourself much did you? Make much of a mess on the counter, sink, floor? If you’re like me you’ll have to dump the veggies into the boiling water in stages. This means you won’t do what is usually recommended and dump the whole pot, veggies, boiling water and all, into a colander in the sink at the end of the three minutes. If you do, then you’ll have to refill the pot and wait another twenty minutes for the new water to boil. This is a waste of water, coal or gas and time.
Instead, we use a large slotted spoon and remove the broccoli (or insert other vegetable here) as quickly as possible from the water, thus preserving the hot water for another batch nearly instantly. If, however, you set the timer for three minutes and begin removing the broccoli one spoonful at a time when it beeps, you’ll end up with some broccoli that’s in the boiling water much longer than it should be. If you’re doing a lot (which you should simply to save resources and time) this can be up to a full minute or more. This results in broccoli that is tough and tasteless when you crack open that freezer bag in February.
The solution is to use the three minutes as a rough guide. In general, I try to begin removing the vegetable from the blanching bath in order to have the last of it leave the pot as the beeper sounds. Keep in mind there is tremendous heat still in the vegetables after they leave the boiling water. You need to get them into very cold water right out of the pot. But they are still cooking. That’s why it’s OK to remove them a few seconds before the three minutes is up.
Most storage how-to books say you should plunge the vegetables into a sink full of ice water. This, again, is too resource and time intensive. A better solution is simply to fill the sink with water from the tap that is as cold as the tap can get. That will be good enough. Put the vegetables into a colander in that cold water bath. Let them sit there for a couple of minutes until they are cool to the touch. They will transfer all that heat out to the water in the sink.
Once they have cooled and the cooking has ceased, it’s time to dry them. This is an important step. Remove as much moisture as you can to prevent freezer burn. I lay out a large bath towel on the floor (yes the floor. Don’t freak out. The food never touches the floor and even if it did that’s not really a big deal. If you’ve got kids you understand. They eat off the floor all the time and they’re still here.) and dump the vegetables onto it spreading them out as much as possible. Then I take another bath towel and place it on top making a sort of sandwich. Then I try to press and roll the vegetables around through the towel to get as much water as possible.
Once they are as dry as you can get them it’s time to pack them into the freezer bag. If you have a vacuum sealer you should use it. The more air you can remove from the bag the better. But I don’t and it’s fine. I just pack the vegetables into the freezer bag and then close it almost all the way. When only a small opening is left on one side I fold over the excess plastic and squeeze all the air out that I can, squeezing the vegetables too. When I’m satisfied I keep the bag squeezed tightly and try to close the zipper without letting any air in. Once this is done and you’re sure the bag is closed securely you should flatten the bag and shake it about so the vegetables are distributed evenly and the bag changes from a big bulge to a flat thick pancake. This will make storage much more organized.
Then, put the date and what it is on the bag and put it in the freezer. Enjoy in a few months!
Out in the garden things are going swimmingly. You can really feel the oncoming change in the season. The air is cooler in the mornings and evening, the garden begins to feel different as certain things are let go, others are tilled under to make way for new crops, stakes are removed and put away or relocated to other beds to trellis freshly planted crops like the fall peas. The days of tubs full of lettuce are gone and have been replaced by crates of tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchini and summer squash.
As things begin rolling in off the gardens and into the farmers markets around Central Maine it is time to think about the time when the farmer’s market is somewhere between a distant memory and a future hoped for. If you work a little bit now and plan ahead you may not miss it quite as much. No, there isn’t anything like the freshness of summer. But that’s no reason to be forced back into the horror of the industrial system. This winter, rather than getting in your car and braving a Nor’ Easter, you could be staying warm and snug in your home with a cozy sweater, the radio on and enjoying a plate of the best summer bounty a few hours on an August night can buy. Local Food. Eat well – be well.